Jacob Shames: A sustainable difference
MINNEAPOLIS — Two shots.
That’s all Michigan allowed in the third period against No. 9 Minnesota on Saturday.
The Wolverines entered the final frame up by two goals — just 20 minutes away from earning its first sweep at Mariucci Arena in 41 years. There’s a reason it had been that long.
The Golden Gophers don’t lose often at home. They don’t lose often, period. In those last 41 years, they’ve had just three losing seasons.
But they reach a different level at Mariucci. Coming into the weekend, Minnesota was 11-2 there and 1-8-1 anywhere else this season. While they struggle on the road, the Gophers’ talent-laden roster — 14 players have been drafted by NHL teams — shines through at their home arena, with more room to operate on its larger, Olympic-sized rink. In desperate need of points of any kind to stay afloat in the Big Ten, Minnesota surely had no plans to simply roll over.
Instead, Michigan held the Gophers to two shots in the third period. Neither of which seriously challenged sophomore goaltender Hayden Lavigne.
That type of performance wouldn’t have happened two months ago.
While this weekend was the most stunning result of the Wolverines’ season so far, they aren’t any stranger to surprises. They defeated the then fourth-ranked Gophers 5-4 in overtime on Nov. 11 after rallying from an early 3-0 hole. They fell behind 4-0 a night later and came back yet again, salvaging a tie that felt just as much like a victory.
If the enthusiastic, “Michigan hockey is back!” takes didn’t begin in earnest after the Wolverines came one minute away from sweeping Penn State in its own building two weeks prior, they surely did so after a win and a tie against a team many picked to win the Big Ten.
But it turns out they were a bit premature.
Michigan won only one of its next seven games after the Minnesota series. It was outscored 30-18 over that span — part of a larger stretch where the Wolverines gave up a brutal 44 goals in 10 games.
Despite a porous defense, Michigan could still score. That’s never been in question. But the Wolverines’ diet of goals was unbalanced. They were subsisting off their top line of seniors Dexter Dancs and Tony Calderone and junior Cooper Marody, a trio which in the aforementioned 10-game stretch accounted for 42.6 percent of Michigan’s total points. The proverbial fruits and vegetables — the second, third and fourth lines — weren’t a part of the Wolverines’ diet, and their opponents were proving it unsustainable.
“The makeup came off and we saw a lot of the blemishes this weekend,” said Michigan coach Mel Pearson after a 5-1 loss to Ohio State on Nov. 25. “We were able to cover some things up, (but) this weekend we saw a little bit of some of the issues that we’re going to have going forward.”
A few of those issues looked on course to be corrected, starting with two encouraging performances against Notre Dame last weekend. Michigan held the then-No. 2 team in the nation to two goals in both games and outshot the Fighting Irish a combined 70-63. If not for Notre Dame goaltender Cale Morris erecting a brick wall in front of the net, the Wolverines likely would have come away with points of some variety.
All of these positive developments culminated this weekend.
The defense continued to flourish, allowing just two goals in even-strength play. Lavigne stopped 41 of the 45 shots sent in his direction. The Gophers had precious few opportunities to show their individual skill, with Quinn Hughes, Sam Piazza, Luke Martin and Joseph Cecconi seemingly always in the right position in the defensive zone.
Michigan’s penalty-kill was maybe the only unit that had even a mediocre performance against Minnesota, allowing goals in both games. However, the Gophers needed almost all of the allotted two minutes to score each time. The group stepped up when it needed to as well, with a huge stop in the third period Saturday, and Pearson saw noted improvement on special-teams after he “didn’t like” Friday’s performance.
“I thought we did a great job penalty killing,” Pearson said Saturday. “Your goaltender’s got to be your best penalty killer … The one we killed in the third period was excellent. Blocking shots, doing a lot of good things, getting sticks.”
On the other end of the ice, the Wolverines scored eight goals — less than the 11 they scored in November’s series, but more than enough to win. These goals came early, too — Michigan was on the scoreboard within two minutes in both contests.
“We played with the lead all weekend and when you can do that on the road that really helps,” Pearson said. “Not like the previous games where it seems like we’ve been down 2-0 every game, so that was a change this weekend and I thought it really gave our guys some confidence.”
While Marody, Calderone and Dancs still pulled the cart on offense, that cart weighed much less this time, as the unit tallied just six of Michigan’s 19 points. At the same time, other lines emerged — for the first time this season, the Wolverines’ lineups remained the same for both games of a weekend series. Junior forward Brendan Warren scored Michigan’s first goal Saturday with a snipe from the slot, and sophomore forward Josh Norris, playing on the wing for the first time this season, followed suit with a one-timer off a beautiful feed from sophomore forward Jake Slaker.
The third line of freshman Dakota Raabe and sophomores Adam Winborg and James Sanchez excelled, as did the fourth line of sophomore Nick Pastujov and freshmen Jack Becker and Michael Pastujov, which totalled four points on Friday. Even the Wolverines’ floundering power-play, which had scored just 14.8 percent of the time entering the weekend, was much improved, as it capitalized on two of their three opportunities with the man-advantage Saturday.
“I liked Winborg, Raabe, Sanchez — they had a shift there at the end of the game and didn’t let Minnesota out of their zone for literally 45 seconds,” Pearson said. “Just a great shift that you need at a time like that. Becker, Pastujov and Pastujov are playing well. I like Slaker and Norris, we put Norris on the wing, and he’s got some renewed energy — think he’s got three, four points in his last couple games here, so good for him.”
After being swept, Minnesota fell to 4-9-1 in the Big Ten, ahead of only Michigan State. This is a talented, but horribly inconsistent, Gopher team. Despite how monumental such a result is for Michigan, it hardly means the Wolverines are “back.”
But this weekend, Michigan did something that those Wolverines teams of yesteryear never accomplished, and looked dominant in doing so, no less. Sure, there’s always luck involved, but what Michigan did this weekend — winning with goaltending, defense and depth on offense — is perfectly sustainable.
No makeup needed.